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Berkhamsted in 1835

BERKHAMPSTEAD, or more properly, BERKHAMSTED, or, at length, BERKHAMSTED ST. PETER’S, a market-town situated in a deep valley, on the south-west side of the river Bulborn and the Grand Junction Canal, which here run together in a line parallel to the high road : it is in the county of Hertford and hundred of Dacorum, twenty-six and a half miles N.W. from London. The town seems to be of Saxon origin : the name is certainly Saxon. Norden says that the Saxons called it Berghamstedt because it was seated among the hills, Berg signifying a hill, Ham a town, and Stedt a seat ; or we may consider it compounded of the words Burg, a fortified place, and Ham-Stede, the fortified Hamstede (homestead), to distinguish it from Hehan Hampstede, now corrupted to Hemel Hampstede, a town in the neighbourhood. The addition of St. Peter’s distinguishes this Berkhamsted from Berkhamsted St. Mary, otherwise Northchurch, also in this neighbourhood. The kings of Mercia had certainly a palace or castle at this place, and to this we may attribute the growth, if not the origin, of the town. William the Conqueror came to Berkhamsted on his way through Wallingford to London after the battle of Hastings, and was obliged to make some stay there, his further progress having been intercepted by Frederic, abbot of St. Alban’s, who caused the trees that grew by the road side to be cut down and thrown across the way. A grand meeting was afterwards held at Berkhamsted between William and the nobles and prelates who belonged to the powerful confederacy which this abbot, who was of the royal blood of the Saxons, had organised with the object either of compelling the Norman to rule according to the ancient laws and customs of the country, or else of doing their utmost to raise Edgar Atheling to the throne. William thought it prudent to take the required oath, which was administered by Frederic, upon the relics of St. Alban. It is well known how William neglected this oath when he was firmly seated on the throne. In the distribution of territory among his followers which then took place, the castle and manor of Berkhamsted were given to his half-brother the earl of Moreton. Domesday Book informs us that the property was rated at thirteen hides, and that it was worth twenty-four pounds in the time of King Edward, twenty pounds when bestowed on the earl, but only sixteen pounds at the then present time. Among other curious particulars in this account, it is mentioned that the land contained two arpends of vineyards. There were in the borough at this time fifty-two burgesses who paid four pounds a-year for toll, and had half a hide, and two mills of the annual rent of 20 shillings. The earl enlarged and strengthened the castle ; but in the time of his son it was seized by Henry I, and, according to most accounts, razed to the ground, and the town and manor reverted to the crown. Henry II held his court there at one time, and granted very valuable privileges ‘to the men and merchants of the Honour of Wallingford and Berkhamsted St. Peter’s.’ Among them it was granted that they should have ‘firm peace in all his land of England and Normandy, wheresoever they shall be,’ with the enjoyment of all the laws and customs which they had in the time of King Edward the Confessor, and King Henry his grandfather. He also granted that wheresoever they should go with their merchandises to buy or sell through all England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine, they should be free from all toll and all secular customs and exactions, and all servile works ; and should any man vex or disturb them, he rendered himself liable to a penalty of ten pounds.

Robert Moreton, the Conqueror’s brother, was Earl of Cornwall ; and we find that the honour of Berkhamsted almost invariably accompanied every subsequent grant of that earldom. The castle was rebuilt in the reign of King John, and was afterwards besieged by Louis the Dauphin of France, who had come over to assist the discontented barons. The besieged held out till the king sent them orders to surrender. When Edward III, in the 28th year of his reign, advanced his eldest son Edward the Black Prince to the title and dignity of Duke of Cornwall, the castle and manor of Berkhamsted were given to him, ‘to hold to him, and the heirs of him, and the eldest sons of the kings of England, and the dukes of the said place.’ Accordingly, the property has since descended from the crown to the successive princes of Wales, as heirs to the throne and dukes of Cornwall, under whom it has for the last three centuries been leased out to different persons.

The place seems altogether to have declined in importance since it ceased to be even occasionally a royal residence. The castle appears to have been gradually ruined by neglect. The mansion house, now called Berkhamsted Place, is said to have been erected out of the ruins of the castle, early in the seventeenth century. The greatest part of this mansion was destroyed by fire about 1661, and only about a third part was afterwards repaired, which forms the present residence. The castle itself was situated to the east of the town, and though the buildings are now reduce to a few massive fragments of wall, enough remains to evince the ancient strength and importance of the fortress. The works are of a circular form, approaching to the figure of an ellipsis, and include about eleven acres. It was defended on the north-west side by a double and on the other sides by a triple moat ; these moats are still in some parts wide and deep. The original entrance was at the south-east angle. On the bank between the second and third moat, from the outside, are two rude piers of masonry, between which the entrance probably lay over draw-bridges connecting the several moats. The space inclosed by the inner moat is surrounded by a wall constructed with flints coarsely cemented together, within which stood the habitable part of the castle. Strongly as this castle was fortified, it could not have been tenable after the invention of cannon ; as its site, though elevated, is commanded by still higher eminences on the north and north-east.

At the parliaments holden at Westminster in the 11th and 13th of Edward III, Berkhamsted had two representatives, but there is no record of such return from this place on any other occasions. So also, its charter of incorporation, granted by James I, scarcely survived the reign of his son Charles, who is said to have had a great affection for the place, in consequence of having been nursed at the manor-house with his elder brother Henry, under the care of Mrs. Murray. It is certain that the place was much distinguished by the favour of Charles, both before and after his accession to the throne. When James I was about to incorporate the town, many of the inhabitants petitioned against the measure under the apprehension that the new charter might impair or destroy some of the important privileges which they already enjoyed under ancient grants. After the Restoration an attempt was made to revive the corporations, but it did not succeed.

The petty sessions for the Berkhamsted division are held in the town. There is a market on Saturday, and fairs are held on Shrove-Monday and Whit-Monday for cattle ; 5th August for cheese ; 29th September and 11th October, the two last being the statute fairs. The parish contained 484 houses in 1831, with a population of 2,369 persons, of whom 1,287 were females.

The town of Berkhamsted consists of two streets. The principal, called the High Street, extends about half a mile along the high road ; the other, which is smaller, branches out from the church towards the site of the castle, and is hence called Castle Street. The houses are mostly of brick, and irregularly built, but are interspersed with a fair proportion of handsome residences. The church, which is dedicated to St. Peter, stands in the middle of the town, and is built in the form of a cross, with a square embattled tower rising from the intersection. This tower contains four handsome Gothic windows, and has at the south-east angle a projecting octagonal staircase. On the outside of the tower, next the street, there is a sculpture of an angel supporting a shield, on which the arms of England impale those of the church of St. Paul. The nave is divided from the aisles by five columns and two half columns on each side, sustaining plain pointed arches, over each of which is a pointed arched window. The western window is large and ramified ; all the others are like it, in the pointed style, but vary in size and description. Various small chapels and chantries were founded here in Catholic times, and are still partially divided from the body of the church. It contains a large number of sepulchral memorials, some of which are very curious and interesting. One of the least obtrusive is in memory of the mother of Cowper the poet, who was born at the parsonage house on the 26th November, N.S., 1731, his father, Dr. John Cowper, being then rector of the parish. The living, which is a rectory in the diocese of Lincoln, is in the gift of the crown, and its present average net income is £333. The church accommodates 1,106 persons.

The donations which have been made to this parish for the erection of almshouses, and otherwise for the relief of the poor, are so numerous, but of so little consequence separately, that it is sufficient to limit our notice to the establishments for education. In the 15th of Henry VIII the inhabitants of Berkhamsted agreed to appropriate the lands of their guild or brotherhood of St. John the Baptist (which had formerly supported an hospital for poor sick persons and lepers) to the erection and support of a free school in the town. Dr. Incent, Dean of St. Paul’s, London, who was a native of the town. and president of the guild, actively promoted this transaction, and added to the endowment his own lands in the town. Afterwards fearing that the name of ‘brotherhood’ might render the endowment insecure, he procured a charter of incorporation from the king, which was supplied by a new charter in the following reign. Authority having thus been obtained to erect and found ‘one free school within the said town, of one meet man being a schoolmaster, and the other meet man being an usher, for the teaching of children in grammar, freely, without any exaction or request of money for the teaching of the same children not exceeding the number of 144,’ the present school-house, a large and strong brick building near the church, was erected ; and in the next reign the establishment was incorporated as a royal foundation. All Souls College is visitor under the charter of Edward VI. The annual value of the property is now £634, and the salary of the master (appointed by the king) is £250, and that of the usher £125 ; but for a long time this rich foundation has been altogether inefficient. An old parishioner stated, in 1830, to the commissioners for inquiry concerning charities, that he did not remember more than five free boys in the school at any one time during the last fifty or sixty years. The master and usher of this school have for a long time been either irregularly resident or non-resident (1835).

A charity school was founded in 1727 under the will of Thomas Bourne, who bequeathed £8,000 for the erection and endowment of a school, the property of which is at present £9,300, in New South Sea Annuities, yielding an annual interest of £279. Under this charity twenty boys and ten girls are taught, clothed, and provided with books ; their parents also receive 1 shilling a week each. They are received at the age of six and upwards, and remain till fourteen. The boys are taught English, writing, arithmetic, and the girls English and work, with writing in the last year of their stay. The master and mistress are at liberty to take any number of pay scholars ; the former has a salary of £30 and the latter of £15. There is also an allowance of £2, 10 shillings to each for firing.